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Lectures on Don Quixote Paperback – April 18, 1984

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Editorial Reviews


Quite the least interesting, most dutiful of Nabokov's collegiate lectures on literature, these talks on Don Quixote were given at Harvard, 1951-52. Again, Nabokov applies principles of categorization to the text at hand: dimensions, numbering, topographies, maps. And he offers some (but not much) general discussion of the book's enduring genius. "What we shall witness now is the evolution of the epic form, the shedding of its metrical skin, the hoofing of its feet, a sudden fertile cross between the winged monster of the epic and the specialized prose form of entertaining narration, more or less a domesticated mammal, if I may pursue the metaphor to its lame end;" Nabokov sees Don Quixote as a logical continuation of earlier chivalric romances, "with the elements of madness and shame and mystification increased." The book, he finds, is one of those "perhaps more important in eccentric diffusion than in their intrinsic value." Clearly not one of Nabokov's favorite books, he sees it as neither humane nor humorous: a whole section of the lectures is given over to literally scoring (as in tennis) the Don's cruel humiliations. And Cervantes' comedy receives little praise: "Dulcinea shall be restored to Don Quixote if - now comes the rib-splitting joke - if Sancho consents to take 3000 lashes on his bare behind. Otherwise, says the Duke when he hears of the requirement, you do not get your island. The whole thing is very medieval, coarse, and stupid fun, as all fun that comes from the devil. Authentic humor comes from the angels." True, Nabokov is sometimes entertaining when he kibbitzes, one novelist to another, taking Cervantes to task for not having done a scene better; he does admire the hapless Don himself. ("He stands for everything that is gentle, forlorn, pure, unselfish, and gallant. The parody has become a paragon.") But the bon mots here are scarce, and the book is little more than an acerbic, uninvolved study-guide - for Nabokov fanatics only. (Kirkus Reviews)

About the Author

Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977), Russian-born poet, novelist, literary critic, translator, and essayist was awarded the National Medal for Literature for his life's work in 1973. He taught literature at Wellesley, Stanford, Cornell, and Harvard. He is the author of many works including Lolita, Pale Fire, Ada, and Speak, Memory.


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books (April 18, 1984)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0156495406
  • ISBN-13: 978-0156495400
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.6 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #932,544 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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33 of 38 people found the following review helpful By J. Robinson on April 29, 2006
Format: Paperback
I bought and read Nabokov's "Lectures on Literature" which is based on his European literature course that he taught at Cornell in the 1950s. That is an excellent guide to seven well known novels: "Mansfield Park, Bleak House, Madame Bovary, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Walk by Swann's Place, The Metamorphosis, and Ulysses." In that set of course notes he dissects each book and spends about 40 pages or so on each novel discussing style, structure, etc. He spends more time on Ulysses and less on Kafka's "The Metamorphosis."

The present book is a bit different. He prepared only six lectures that he gave in the spring of 1952 at Harvard for the course Humanities 2. The aim is to describe and give an overall context for the work "Don Quixote." The notes still exist in six manilla folders and they are the basis of the present book edited by Fredson Bowers.

The course starts with a very brief introduction in the same style as the Cornell lectures with sketches of maps, etc. Next, he describes in detail the character of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Those are the first two chapters, or about 24 pages. Then he describes the structure of the book for another 25 pages, again with copies of Nabokov's actual class notes.

Cruelty and mystification are covered in a similar but lengthy analysis, followed by The Chronicler's Theme, and Victory and Defeats. The second half of the book is a chapter by chapter summary of both volumes I and II. In total, it is just over 200 pages of notes.

As Guy Davenport states in his introduction, the book puts most other teachers to shame who attempt to teach Don Quixote in a week. It is refreshing and detailed, and as Nabokov points out, this is an analysis of a book that evokes cruel laughter.
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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Gene Zafrin on June 13, 2007
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
"... one of the most bitter and barbarous books ever penned" said Nabokov about "Don Quixote". Exposing the flood of physical and emotional abuse inflicted on the half insane knight and his largely average squire is at the heart of these lectures. In the early 50's, when Nabokov delivered his lectures on "Don Quixote" at Harvard, this was a radically new take on the classic novel which most critics considered good-natured and almost pastoral. For Nabokov, however, this position was quite in line with his signature irreverent views. He has always been sensitive to human suffering and considered pity for human condition one of the main attributes of art (in his "Lectures on Literature", for example, he especially noted compassion for the lame girl in "Ulysses" and Gregor's quiet suffering as a beetle in "Metamorphosis").

Building up on the themes of cruelty and insanity, Nabokov points out that in 1600's both were enjoyed as entertainment. The raw cruelty of 3,000 lashes that Sancho is to receive, or Don Quixote's suspension by the hand for two hours during which he "bellows like a bull", or the sick pleasure that many of the book's characters derive from Don Quixote's insanity and from playing into it - all that was run of the mill fun in Cervantes's Europe. Nabokov believes that this crude entertainment was the main source of the book's appeal for the readers when the book came out.

The novel's structure (which in Nabokov's world is second only to style) is really nonexistent: "The book belongs essentially to a primitive form, to the loosely strung, higgledy-pickled, variegated picaresque type". Nabokov notes that the many inconsistencies in the book Cervantes seems to either ignore or simply attribute to magic.
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32 of 44 people found the following review helpful By David Lupton on May 3, 2002
Format: Paperback
Nabokov claims to dislike Don Quixote and considers the novel 'crewl' yet spent a significant portion of time analyzing the novel and teaching it. I am reminded of Tolstoy's dismissal of Shakespeare and his dissection of King Lear. Orwell correctly pointed out that, among these giants, bothering to grapple with another's legend so completely is a nod to greatness, one doesn't bother to kill a knat w/ a sledgehammer.
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52 of 83 people found the following review helpful By Fernando Melendez on August 28, 2000
Format: Paperback
What Nabokov does to that venerable Don Q. is to rip it apart, disembowel it, resect the viscera, muscle and bones, and demonstrate how it has all been fitted together, how its various part work and (more importantly) how and why some parts don't work at all.
I admit to having had a life-long aversion to Don Q., an aversion that is rooted in early efforts to make me read "children's versions" of the book by guise of educating me. I suspect that such dislike is widely shared by those who have dared attempt the original text, or even its modern translations. Those who love the story are likely to have limited their sampling to the musical version of the book: "Man of La Mancha."
And so it was truly a pleasure to follow Nabokov in his extraordinary feat of dissection. Nobody in nearly 400 years of Spanish critical appraisals of this awful book has ever come close to exposing the work as thoroughly and meticulously as Nabokov does in the six lectures that he gave at Harvard in 1952. Spanish critics of Cervantes are mainly hagiographers, incapable of noting the Emperor's nakedness. They are apt to compare Cervantes to Shakespeare (don't they wish!), a comparion which Nabokov insightfully reduces to this:
"The only matter in which Cervantes and Shakespeare are equals is the matter of influence, of spiritual irrigation -- I have in view the long shadow cast upon receptive posterity of a created image which may continue to live independently from the book itself. Shakespeare's plays, however, will continue to live apart from the shadow they project." By implication, Don Q. would not.
Nabokov even exposes the canard, much repeated in Spain, that Cervantes and Shakespeare died on the same day in 1616. They did not.
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